Jesse Millner: The Bus Driver's Book of the Dead

About the Author  |
  MEMOIR by Jesse Millner
Polish Wedding  Devolution  Aliens Among Us  Eddie Jones  Dave   Tom 
MarionStarved Rock State Park  The Alcoholic Point of View   My Lost Season  Listening for God  I Remember a Pet Peeve  Hair Salon Panic Attack!  
Please Don't Bury Me in that Cold, Cold Ground


Marion was the only female driver at the bus company. Until cancer took her in 1982, she smoked three packs of Marlboros a day and prided herself on pushing the big Detroit diesel against its governor for the long flat miles that separated Midwest destinations. Many winter weekends the two of us made the trip from Illinois Benedictine College to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, taking Spanish students to a pine-wooded weekend retreat. It usually snowed from Coral to Marengo.

And by Harvard the road has disappeared into the white fields. I have followed the dull red glow of Marion's tail lights for hours, as the grey sky lowers down to the brown stubble of wheat and cornstalks that flicker by like skinny hands pointing toward Big Foot, Illinois, seven miles from the Dairy State border, where downtown is a gas station, Laura's Antique Store, one pallid church and a chain-fenced cemetery next to the woods that darkly thicken the horizon. As we approach Wisconsin, the landscape turns to steep hills, and Marion's MCI fishtails down the first incline that leads toward the lake, which does look like Switzerland, the vast grey waters surrounded by forest, mist obscuring everything.

Now the students are singing “Guatanamera” and there's a hint of moon breaking through the storm. Ice crystals shine like fallen sugar, glaze the open fields as we turn on the narrow road that twists down a lake bluff to the retreat. Windshield wipers thrash clods of new snow into the stillness pierced by steel-belted radials searching for blacktop and meaning amid a chorus of “Yo soy un hombre sincero.” Marion parks in front of the main lodge, gets out and clanks open the aluminum bay doors, her middle-aged body in a polyester black jacket with fake fur around the collar, the wet cold darkening grey work pants, black boots road salt stained. She unloads suitcases by the yellowed storm light, a sudden angel smoking a cigarette, awash in a brightness not of this world but the next.

Later, we fill out our log books to the roar of defrosters pushing warm air against the opaque windshield. The forms of the night—hemlock, pine, lake—disappear beyond the wet grey wall cast by our breath. We sit in the first row of seats, graphing the hours driven to this barren half-light of air pressure gauge and the orange burn of Marion's addiction. The smoke glides to the green and white speckled bus ceiling, circling like an uneasy spirit released in fire then trapped by dirty fiberglass. Marion pours lukewarm coffee into the Styrofoam cups that define a bus driver's life, and we sip the black brew, thinking of the slick miles between us and home, cornfields and dairy farms immersed in January, towns asleep in cold counties of the dead.


© 2010, Jesse Millner

NEXT  >>>
Go to top